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UK nanotechnology research directed at food industry

By Ahmed ElAmin , 01-Dec-2005

UK research will be directed to studying the potential risks posed by nanotechnology, including its effects on health from its use by the food industry, according to a report released yesterday.

The report is a forerunner to eventual regulation on nanotechnology and ismeant to address public concerns over the emerging science, which is already being as used by the food industry.

While far reaching visions such as nanotech food synthesizers or pathogen killing nanobotsare not expected to become reality within the next decades, nanotechnology relatedresearch and development projects for food processing, food engineering and food packagingare currently in the innovation pipeline.

For example nanotechnology, in the form of nanoparticles, could be used by companies to target nutrients to specific areas in the body, according toscientists. A variety of companies are also pioneering developments in food packaging, including techniques to improvefood safety and supply chain tracking. Some nanotech products, such as anti-microbial films, have already entered themarket.

However public and scientific concern about the health effects of thetechnology, which due to its nature is difficult to understand, could hold backits development.

Nanotechnology deals with controlling the properties of matter with lengthsof between 1 and 100 nanometres. One nano-metre is equal to one billionth of ametre, and is about the size of a small molecule.

In the lastest report, the UK's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says money will be directed toward studying the potential risks posed by engineered nanoparticles.

It pinpoints three key areas where more research is needed, including reaching an understanding of where nanoparticles come from and how they travel through the environment, including the human body.

As part of the research programme, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) hascommissioned studies to assess new and potential applications of nanotechnology for food packaging in the UK.

"The risk posed by nanoparticles to organisms will depend on the magnitude and nature of sourcesof exposure, their properties and behaviour in the environment, their associatedenvironmental fate, their toxicity and persistence in organisms and their bioaccumulation and bio-magnification potential through the foodchain," Defra stated.

The UK government research plan is an outcome of a report last year by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering,which advised government to funnel more money into identifying the ethical, environmental, health and safetyissues relating to nanotechnolgy.

That report concluded that there were no significant concerns at present but raised areas where more research should be conducted.It also highlighted the immediate need for research to address uncertainties about the health and environmental effects of nanoparticles - one small area of nanotechnologies.

The research is meant to eventually advise government on what regulation isneeded to control exposure to nanoparticles. The UK programme mirrors an EU reportearlier this year that called for more research into the ethical, legal, and social aspects of nanotechnology asapplied to food packaging, energy and medical diagnostics.

Along with the report the UK government announcing £5m (€7.3m) of new money to fundthe research, bringing the total expenditure devoted to nano-related scientific researchin the UK to about £13m.

Nanotechnology is attractive to the food industry as it promises to yield new solutions tokey challenges. Food engineering is one of the areas receiving the highestattention, according to a separate EU report earlier this year. Research and developmentunderway includes the development of functional food, nutrient delivery systems and methods for optimizing food appearance, such as colour, flavour and consistency.

In the food-packaging arena, nanomaterials are being developed with enhanced mechanical andthermal properties to ensure better protection of foods from exterior mechanical, thermal,chemical or microbiological effects.

Some of the potential uses of nanotechnology in food packaging include modifying thepermeation behaviour of foils, increasing barrier properties, improving mechanical andheat-resistance properties, developing active antimicrobic and antifungal surfaces, and sensing and signalling microbiological and biochemical changes.

The most prominent products in the food industry's research and development pipeline includenew polymer nanocomposites for packaging and wrapping. Foils or membranes based onnanocomposites offer adjustable gas permeability in food packaging which can help to betterprotect food.

Also in the pipeline are anti-microbial packaging materials. Materials exhibitinganti-microbial properties caused by nanoparticular silver or other substances have already entered the market. In the future, anti-microbial packaging is expected to become a massapplication.

Another development is packaging with self cleaning surfaces. Dirt-repellent coatings at thenanoscale can prevent the invasion of microorganisms and ensure food safety, theEU report stated.

Worldwide sales of nanotechnology products to the food and beverage packaging sector jumped to US$860m (€687.5m) in 2004 from US$150m (€120m) in 2002, according to a study by consultant Helmut Kaiser.

The German firm predicts that nanotechnology will change 25 per cent of the food packaging business in the next decade leading to a yearly market of about $30bn (€24bn).

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